New Beer’s Eve

Repeal was a years-long slog. Michigan didn’t exactly shine through the process.

April 7 is National Beer Day in the U.S. On this day, in 19 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of the country’s population — 70 million souls or thereabouts — had access to legal beer for the first time in 13 years.
Not Detroit, though. For the first state to ratify the 21st Amendment, legal drinking would have to wait more than a month while legislators, brewers, bottlers, label-makers, excisemen, importers, exporters and all number of cads and scoundrels took their cut of the newly legal (and lucrative) liquor trade. Along the way, we racked up our fair share of weird regulations and kooky laws.

This is not Detroit. It’s LA, a city that had enough sense to drink now and figure out the details later.
Image courtesy Los Angeles Herald Examiner collection, Los Angeles Public Library

By mid-1933, the Great Depression was dragging on. Crime was astronomical in big cities and small towns. And money that had once poured into the federal coffers from a booming 1920s economy had slowed to barely a trickle.

Taxes made Prohibition possible; they made Repeal possible too. Before 1916, more than 70% of federal revenues were made up by beer, wine and liquor excise taxes. With the introduction of federal income taxes, the government was no longer so dependent on the booze dollars. And so we got the 18th Amendment for national Prohibition. But by 1933, the government (and Americans. for that matter) were desperate for cash. Anything to boost the economy!

Enter alcohol. By now it was obvious to even the most fervent teetotallers that the noble experiment had failed. In March of 1933, backed by a substantial chunk of the national population, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged Congress to expedite the passage of an Act allowing individual states to vote on the legality of beer sales and production. Eager Michigan legislators rushed to a vote, and on April 3 the state became to first to officially Repeal the 18th Amendment. The lone Dry holdout, Dr. Eugene Davenport, 77, retired educator from Woodland Township in Barry County, didn’t stand a chance against the 99 other counties who voted resoundingly Wet.

BUT. Then came the dithering, the dallying, the what-ifs and the how-abouts. While states up and down the eastern seaboard prepared for revelries, Michigan’s lawmen racked up regulation after regulation. They debated who could get licenses, and when, and how much they would cost, and what hours and locations were allowed. On and on the objections and the stipulations piled up as half the country (including neighbor Ohio) merrily lined up the kegs in preparation for April 7.

“We do not want to rush this bill through,” State Rep. Tracy W. Southworth, Dem-Monroe told the Michigan Daily. “If it should be passed, beer would flow in from other states, and would be sold without license or regulation. We want to wait until Michigan breweries can start operating.”

Julius Stroh, scion of one of Detroit’s oldest brewing families, told anyone who would listen that he was ready to have beer for sale in 48 hours or less. After all, the half-percent “near beer” that Stroh’s was cranking out during Prohibition came from a much stronger brew that was cut down to meet regulations.

Wet Michiganders stayed Dry while we watched wistfully as the Gay Balls in other states celebrated. Alas.

In 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to a wistful Detroit Free Press report, “groups gathered throughout the country for beer balls and watch parties waved steins aloft and toasted the beginning of the end of the thirteen-year reign of absolute prohibition in the United States.” Beer — and beer only, for now — was legally quaffed in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. North Carolina and Washington D.C. allowed sale of beer to anyone 18 or older.

West Virginia police officers were ordered to ignore any sightings of cases, bottles or barrels of beer in the hands or vehicles of private citizens, until their Repeal took effect in June of that year. In Milwaukee, eight of the city’s largest breweries released 15 million bottles to thirsty drinkers with little ceremony; it being Lent, city officials decided against hosting a large beer festival until after Easter.

New York Times, April 7, 1933. Note: The 3.2 percentage refers to alcohol by barrel weight; nowadays, we use the more accurate alcohol by volume (ABV) number of 4%.* See note below

Still we waited. Townships like Royal Oak scrambled to amend city charters to allow for compliance with state regulations on sales and storage once our state bill finally passed. Huntington Woods, then a tiny township, couldn’t produce any businesses that were large enough to meet state requirements for liquor storage. Shipments of beer from Wisconsin, Ohio and Canada piled up at railroad depots, awaiting the required revenue stamps.

Finally, more than a month after we’d been Johnny-on-the-spot for Repeal, our legislators, lobbyists and business owners agreed on a deal for regulation of state sales of beer. Yes, all this effort was JUST to get beer of 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) approved for sale and storage in Michigan. It would take many more months for us to figure out how to regulate wine and liquor. Heck, we’re still not exactly great at it. In the first days of May 1933, Michigan finally decided on its own New Beer’s Eve: May 10, 1933. Or 11. Depending on where you were.
This, in case you’re wondering, is why Ye Olde Tap Room celebrates its annual Repeal Day party on the second Saturday in May: to commemorate the anniversary of when Michigan got its first taste of legal alcohol (in public) in 15 years.

Photo courtesy National Endowment for the Humanities.

Next up: May 10 and 11, 1933: The Day(s) the Taps Flowed Again in Michigan, and the Real First Liquor License in the State.

*Note re: alcohol percentage. It’s commonly reported, by many reputable sources, that 3.2% beer was the highest percentage allowed by weight in the early versions of the 21st Amendment. Some states kept that designation, rather than the more common measurement of alcohol by volume (ABV) that most of us are accustomed to. So, for example, in some states like Utah, the max 3.2% beers allowed are by weight — which adds up to about 4% ABV. They’re both pretty low-alcohol beers, but they’re about the same: a session style beer rather than a full-bodied one. So get off Utah’s case, especially since they’re the ones that finally made Repeal a reality by ratifying the 21st Amendment at 5:32 and 30 seconds on December 5, 1933.



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Mickey Lyons Written by:

Mickey is a Detroit-based author and researcher on Detroit Prohibition history. Her upcoming book, City on a Still: Detroit During Prohibition, is in the works. In the meantime, she spends her days trudging through old bars and buildings and sifting through old newspapers.

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